Notre Dame may have the best-conditioned team in the tournament field. And maybe the best-conditioned coaching staff.
Injuries have decimated the Fighting Irish, who had only seven scholarship players at one point. They have eight now, and student manager Christy Grady will join them in uniform on the bench when they meet Alabama on Saturday in the East Regional semifinals.
The lack of depth means players get few breaks in a game, foul trouble is always a concern and the Irish are forced play a zone defense. It also has played havoc with workouts.
"It's really hard to practice," coach Muffet McGraw said Wednesday. "When we're at home, we have a couple of guys practice with us. But when we go on the road, the staff ends up playing a lot, so they're in great shape, too."
The Irish have won 19 of 21, and the only losses were to No. 1-ranked Connecticut. The second loss, 86-77 in the final of the Big East tournament, was Connecticut's closest game of the season.
No. 1 seed North Carolina plays George Washington in the other East semifinal, and the Tar Heels will be without Jessica Gaspar, their fourth-leading scorer and most accurate three-point shooter. She tore knee ligaments in a second-round win over Michigan State.
"We're going to miss Jessica," coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "She's like a little spark plug out there, real fiery. And she's made some big shots."
Stanford plays Virginia in the semifinals Saturday, and Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer hopes the contract extension she just signed will help her team focus on the tournament and not her job status.
VanDerveer has looked into coaching jobs with the women's pro leagues and with the CBA. The extension keeps her under contract with Stanford through the 2001-02 season.
"I feel I've been a distraction in a way," she said. "I don't want to be the story of our team."
Alabama coach Rick Moody said his team has played its best games of the season in winning its first two tournament games. But he remains wary. All season the Crimson Tide has followed strong stretches of play with inexplicable losses.
"It definitely concerns me. There's no reason to think it couldn't happen again," Moody said. "But it's up to the players, and it's up to me as a coach to put people out there who are focused. If you come out not focused, you don't need to be out there at this point in the season."
_ TIMES WIRES